Opening Chilly New Vistas

Hiking: More than just a summer pastime

Hiking is something Audra Matolka has long enjoyed, but until last year, she had never tried heading out on trails in the fall and winter months.

“I wanted to keep active and my friend convinced me to do it,” said Matolka, who lives in Palmer. “It had never occurred to me to do that. At first I didn’t want to; I thought it sounded really scary, didn’t think it was safe.” Then, she said jokingly, “I went (hiking) when I realized my friends didn’t die.”

Matolka is one of an increasing number of people who are discovering they don’t have to curb their hiking habit after temperatures start sliding toward zero and below.

A desire to stay active — without necessarily toting along skis or snowshoes — is one reason this is happening, and outdoor gear that meets the needs of cold-weather hikers is another. 

➜ Shoe spikes that grip better and reliably stay on winter boots make it possible to safely hike steep, icy trails.

➜ Improvements in outdoor clothing and footwear keep hikers warmer and drier than in the past, so they can stay out on the trail longer in frigid conditions.

➜ Avalanche beacons, probes, shovels and a variety of global-positioning systems and satellite-locator beacon options improve safety for hikers who prefer mountainous or more remote terrain.

Hikers who venture out all year discover rewards more fulfilling than nestling indoors by a cozy fire. They can see and experience familiar trails and scenery in a new way, as well as maintain and even nudge up their level of fitness. Matolka hiked the rolling terrain, stairs and switchbacks of 900-foot Bodenburg Butte, east of Palmer, dozens of times last fall. When snow fell, Matolka and her hiking companion tucked portable shovels in their packs to clear the stairs they needed to climb to reach the top.

“The first few times, doing the Butte was rough, but it got addicting,” Matolka said. “It’s a great workout. I had hiked Matanuska Peak last summer but think I could do that a lot faster now. I do think hiking the Butte in winter helped give me the stamina to be able to hike Pioneer Ridge trail—I did that in August.”

Matolka could manage the Butte’s steeper segments with the help of ropes another winter hiker had laced along the trail’s switchbacks. She also used ice grippers on her boots.

“If it’s icy and slippery, hiking in winter’s too miserable,” she said. “The first spikes I bought were cheap things that fell off; I’d find them in the snow. Then I went and bought Yaktrax with the Velcro that keeps them on. They worked fine. It would have been pretty difficult coming down without them.”

Ben Arians manages Alaska Mountaineering & Hiking in Anchorage, which caters to the needs of outdoor-oriented athletes—primarily cross-country and backcountry skiers, ice and rock climbers, hikers and backpackers.

Arians said he hasn’t seen a noticeable upswing in the number of customers inquiring about winter hiking.

“People are just plain active,” he said. “They’re doing it but not thinking, ‘I’m doing winter hiking.’ They’re just going hiking in the winter.”

Arians said winter hiking is possible on any trail that’s packed and doesn’t require the use of snowshoes to stay afloat on snow.

“It depends on what the snowload has been,” he said. “It wouldn’t be something people gear up for other than getting a better pair of walking grippers like Kahtoolas and an insulated hiking boot.”

Julia Murakami, an Anchorage REI clothing and footwear specialist, has hiked in cold weather for years. She has seen an upswing in the number of customers inquiring about winter hiking, biking and camping.

“My family did a lot of winter hiking around town—at Prospect Heights, Flattop and Crow Creek—but now there’s a lot more people into it,” Murakami said. “Now you can hike in Eagle River and Denali if you know the right places to go. Before, it just wasn’t as popular. I feel there wasn’t the right kind of gear, wasn’t as much knowledge. Mountaineers were the only people who did it.” Murakami says people are now able to do things like winter tours and four-season backpacking because of the much more efficient clothing and footwear that’s available.

“There are winter hiking shoes and mountaineering shoes,” she said. “There’s also just a lot more progression in base layers, wicking layers. There’s always been down but now there’s synthetic down, with a different kind of waterproofing. All of these things are making it easier for people to stay dry and comfortable in the cold.”

Tents and sleeping bags are so light and compressible, Murakami said, that backpackers can “pack it down to almost nothing, take a 30-pound pack and stay out three or four days. It’s fun there’s so much stuff coming out, more stuff you can do when you’re outside in the wintertime, especially in Alaska where we have nine months of winter.”

Word of mouth is a key reason why more people are getting out to hike in winter, Murakami said.

“There’s a weird bridge in people’s mind telling them they can’t do it,” Murakami said. “They have the idea that hiking in cold is only for expeditionists or extreme mountaineers. I have no idea what discourages people. It’s just as serene, the air’s going to be just as clean, everything’s going to be just as pristine. You don’t need to have rock-solid fitness to be able to go outside. You can put on a pair of hiking boots and snowpants and go outside.” 

Tracy Kalytiak is senior editor at Alaska magazine, and an avid winter and summer hiker.

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